Before I tell you how our local school district gets its “closeup,” I’ll just say there are lots of things I could write about this film, including its relevance to issues of today (the ongoing Proposition 8 debate).
I also have strong personal memories of being a straight, teenage girl living in Walnut Creek at the time Milk was elected supervisor in 1977 and of seeing him on TV through the following year, speaking out against Proposition 6, a proposed law that would have made it mandatory to fire gay teachers and any public school employee who supported gay rights.
I also have pretty vivid memories of those horrible 10 days in November 1978—first of when news broke on November 18 about the Jonestown cult mass suicide/massacre, which involved a number of former Bay Area residents—and then of when Milk and Mayor George Moscone were gunned down in San Francisco City Hall on November 27, 1978. Their assailant was a City Hall colleague, Dan White, a disgruntled, anti-gay supervisor who had just resigned his seat. I remember watching TV coverage of then-Board of Supervisors president and now-U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein announcing the deaths of Milk and Moscone and then, that evening, the spontaneous candlelight march from the Castro district to City Hall, which spanned the width of Market Street, and extended a mile and a half long.
Many of these events are covered in Milk, starring Sean Penn as the former camera store owner who became the “Mayor of Castro Street.”
The cameo by the Walnut Creek school district comes during the part of the film that covers Milk’s campaign against the aforementioned Proposition 6. Just some background: Leading up to Proposition 6, there was a wave of anti-gay votes in municipalities around the United States, including a repeal of an anti-discrimination ordinance in Dade County, Florida, led by former beauty queen and orange juice pitchwoman Anita Bryant. Proposition 6 wound up on the California ballot with conservative state Senator John Briggs as the major figurehead behind it. In fact, the measure was known as the Briggs Initiative.
Milk, as depicted by Milk, saw defeating Proposition 6 as a milestone in the fight for equal rights for gays and lesbians.
Briggs and Milk engaged in numerous debates around the state, during which Briggs maintained that homosexual teachers wanted to abuse and turn children gay. Milk responded with statistics compiled by law enforcement that provided evidence that pedophiles identified primarily as heterosexual, and dismissed Briggs’ points with one-liner jokes: “If it were true that children mimicked their teachers, you’d sure have a helluva lot more nuns running around.”
Some of those debates took place in school gymnasiums, including one identified as belonging to the Walnut Creek School District, of which I’m a graduate and which my son currently attends. The scene is presented as a “Channel 7” live presentation of the debate between Milk and Briggs. And it is during this scene that Milk makes his joke about how “you’d have a helluva lot more nuns running around” if it was true that children would turn gay just by having an openly gay teacher.
As I said, I remember the Proposition 6 measure being on the ballot, and I remember Milk’s role in speaking out against it and his jubilant demeanor during an interview after learning of its defeat on election night in November 1978. I don’t remember Milk and Briggs coming to Walnut Creek to debate the proposition—not that they didn’t. I just don’t remember.
In the fall of 1978, I was student directing my Walnut Creek high school drama department’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s tender family comedy, Ah, Wilderness! Milk was killed the week we presented that show. Most noteworthy about that show: the student playing O’Neill’s idealized version of a father was a good friend of mine who, in the wake up Milk’s death, would come out openly as gay in our high school. He was harassed by some jocks on campus.
My friend never said so but it’s likely he was taking to heart and putting into action the words that Milk spoke in an electrifying speech he made on the night that Proposition 6 was defeated. In a few weeks, Milk would be dead.
Rob Epstein, who directed the 1984 Academy Award-winning documentary, The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, quoted some of Milk’s speech in a recent column for the Huffington Post, in which he analyzes similarities between this year’s Proposition 8 debate and Milk’s anti-Proposition 6 campaign 30 years earlier:
“…to the gay community all over this state, my message to you is, so far a lot of people joined us and rejected Proposition 6, and we owe them something. We owe them to continue the education campaign that took place. We must destroy the myths once and for all, shatter them. We must continue to speak out, and most importantly, most importantly, every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is you must tell your immediate family, you must tell your relatives, you must tell your friends, if indeed they are your friends, you must tell your neighbors, you must tell the people you work with, you must tell the people in the stores you shop in (thunderous applause), and once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and for all. And once you do, you will feel so much better.”